Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review of Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt

kingdombeyondthewavesStephen Hunt’s steampunk/fantasy novel The Court of the Air was one of the best books I read last year (see my review), so I was quite excited when the follow-up The Kingdom Beyond the Waves made its recent arrival in the United States.  It is set in the same world as its predecessor, and ideally I’d recommend reading them in order to get a better feel for Hunt’s setting, but The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is a self-contained story that works well on its own.

Like The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is set in a world where magic and steampunk technology exist side-by-side.  Sorcerers who draw energy from the ley lines of the earth exist alongside industrial mass production, steam power, airships, primitive firearms, and huge mechanical computing devices.  The focus is once again on the Kingdom of Jackals, a mercantile nation kept safe by its monopoly on the jealously guarded technology to build airships.

The story focuses on Amelia Harsh, an archaeologist who has dedicated herself to the search for lost Camlantis, a glorious ancient civilization that the academic establishment of jackals regards as a myth.  Regarded as a crank for her obsession with Camlantis, she has been shut out of academia and deprived of funding when an unexpected benefactor appears: Abraham Quest, the greatest industrialist in Jackals, a renowned philanthropist, humanitarian, and social reformer, and the man whose brilliant manipulations of the stock market led to the bankruptcy and suicide of Amelia’s father.  Amelia is reluctant to work with him, but he can offer what she has sought all her life- ancient records revealing the place where Camlantis once stood and the chance to vindicate her theories at last.

Unfortunately, what had been fabled Camlantis 10,000 years ago is now a deadly, almost impenetrable jungle filled with hostile inhuman natives, huge predatory reptiles, and the agents of a vast collective mind that rules the deepest parts of the jungle and tries to subsume anyone who wanders to close into itself.  Harsh must travel upriver into the jungle via U-boat, accompanied by her old friend Commodore Black, Quest’s force of deadly drug-enhanced foreign mercenaries, a U-boat crew recruited from convicted slavers who have been promised clemency if they survive, and a steam man jungle guide of dubious mental stability.

Into these events is drawn Cornelius Fortune, a reclusive aristocrat who lives a secret life as Furnace-Breath Nick, feared vigilante and scourge of the brutal revolutionary regime that rules Jackals’ neighbor and greatest foe, Quatershift.  When a brilliant inventor he has rescued from the prison camps of Quatershift and brought to Jackals suddenly vanishes without a trace, Fortune is confronted with deadly political machinations involving the Jackelian criminal underworld, steam man bodies vanishing from their graves, and mysterious attempts on the life of Abraham Quest.  Somehow, these events are also connected to ancient Camlantis, and both Cornelius Fortune and Amelia Harsh will have to confront the legacy left by that ancient the utopia- a legacy that could mean the death of every human being on the planet.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is an excellent follow-up to The Court of the Air.  Like The Court of the Air, it is very fast-paced and has lots of action, though it didn’t feel quite as frantic as its predecessor, perhaps because at least some of the concepts were already familiar to me from the previous book.  Nevertheless, the rapid progression of events, continuing revelations, and the book’s sheer volume of creative ideas give the book the same manic quality that I enjoyed in The Court of the Air.

The characters are not especially deep or complex, but nevertheless they are interesting and succeed well in inspiring emotional investment.  The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is somewhat dark in tone, but less so than The Court of the Air, and like its predecessor its relentless energy allows it to be dark without being depressing or dispiriting.  Some of the prominent themes of The Court of the Air are seen again here, with both books reflecting a sense of striving and hope combined with a distrust of utopianism.

Like its predecessor, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves does a great job of being extremely dense in both events and ideas without seeming overstuffed, and of being diverse and varied without seeming jumbled or incoherent.  In Hunt’s hands it feels perfectly natural that airships, lost civilizations, sorcery, a heterodox archaeologist/pulp adventurer, submarines, a race of intelligent steam-powered robots, a jungle ruled by an evil hive mind, and a character best described as “The Scarlet Pimpernel, if The Scarlet Pimpernel had been a shapeshifting steampunk cyborg” all show up in the same story.

Just like its predecessor, I can’t recommend The Kingdom Beyond the Waves enough.  It’s a fantastic book for people who like either fantasy or steampunk, or for anyone who likes fast-paced adventure stories.  Stephen Hunt has very quickly become one of the most exciting authors in fantasy, and I can’t wait to see the third book in the series, The Rise of the Iron Moon, reach the United States.

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1 comment:

Emperor said...

I will definately pick this one up! I love steampunk, but I believe the correct terminology for this would be magepunk. I've made a D&D campaign setting which is similiar. Many magepunk influences.